Giuliani search warrant resolved Justice Department dispute

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FILE - In this Nov. 19, 2020, file photo, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani speaks during a news conference at the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington. Federal agents raided Giulianis Manhattan home and office on Wednesday, April 28, 2021, seizing computers and cellphones in a major escalation of the Justice Departments investigation into the business dealings of former President Donald Trumps personal lawyer. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

WASHINGTON – The question of whether to serve a search warrant for Rudy Giuliani's records simmered inside the Justice Department in the waning months of the Trump administration, dividing officials in New York and Washington and remaining unresolved for a new leadership team to sort out.

The new crowd resolved it this week in dramatic fashion. On Wednesday, federal agents raided the home and office of former President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, collecting phones and computers as part of their probe into whether he broke U.S. lobbying laws by failing to register as a foreign agent related to his work.

It’s not clear exactly why Justice Department officials chose this particular moment to strike, but it wasn't out of character for the agency under new Attorney General Merrick Garland. The move was just one in a series of headline-making decisions by a department moving quickly to assert itself in investigations and policy setting.

In the past two weeks, President Joe Biden's attorney general has also made good on a promise to amplify the department's civil rights focus, announcing sweeping investigations into police departments in Minneapolis and Louisville as well as hate crime charges against three Georgia men in connection with the killing of Ahmaud Arbery.

The FBI action in New York on Wednesday was especially notable both because of the high-profile nature of the Giuliani investigation and because of the vigorous debate the search warrant question had produced inside the Trump-era Justice Department.

Prosecutors in New York wanted last fall to serve a warrant on Giuliani as part of an investigation into whether he had failed to register as a foreign agent over his dealings with Ukrainian officials. But that request was rebuffed by officials in the deputy attorney general's office in Washington. In a dispute over investigative tactics, they raised concerns both before and after the election and did not sign off on a warrant, multiple people familiar with the matter have said.

A new leadership team under Garland apparently reached a different conclusion, though it is not clear on what grounds. The new deputy attorney general, Lisa Monaco, and John Carlin, her top deputy, have both previously led the department's national security division — which is responsible for enforcing the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA — and will presumably be engaged in the investigation as it moves forward.

Former Justice Department official David Laufman said it would be reasonable for the new leadership team to reassess how legal actions were made, especially if they believed the previous administration reached an incorrect decision “on an important investigative action in a matter of considerable importance.”